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How a video game helped save my sanity

One year ago, I quit drinking.

When I quit, life became thorny and unfun. Playing Civilization 5 helped me get through a rough patch.


I had been a big drinker for the past 30 years. It was hard for me to say goodbye to something that had given me so much pleasure. But it was definitely time to move on. I was kinda losing it.

Drinking was my escape from life, and it was a fine one. When it was gone, the biggest problem was finding some new bolt-hole. Civilization 5 filled that role. I am writing here about how it filled the role, but I am not sure I understand it myself.

A few lost hours in a dive bar

While I was drinking, I managed to maintain a pretty good semblance of functionality. I have a wonderful family,  a nice job and some rewarding creative side-projects. Drinking was my opportunity to slam against the emergency exit of my mostly agreeable life, clatter down the fire-escape steps, and away.

Most days, it was a few lost hours in a dive bar, supping ale, talking rubbish to strangers and playing country songs on the jukebox. It was my selfish, happy time when everything outside became background blur.

But there is always a price for these things. I quit because it was ruining my health and it was making me grumpy and slightly unhinged. Having gotten drunk maybe five or six thousand times in my life, I figured that was probably enough.

When it was gone, I looked to fill that time with something else. Useful, productive activities would not help me. I have enough of those. I needed a time to get away from the things that make life valuable, in order for their value to gain clarity. I am not sure if that even makes sense to me.

Anyway, playing Civilization 5 is like drinking in the sense that when I'm doing it, I'm not doing anything else. It is a whole new universe of being, an alternative world, and nothing else exists.

civ 5

I don't know how being hunched over a beer, and being hunched over a teeming on-screen archipelago feels sorta the same to me, but it does.

A gallon of ale and a few chasers

I should add that my drinking wasn't something social. I almost always did it on my own. I went to dirty bars and guzzled a gallon of ale and a few chasers before going home to tuck the kids into bed. There are names for this sort of behavior and you can pick your favorite. "Problem," is the one I prefer.

It was a problem that had to go, and the how of that is my business and not very interesting anyway. But there was this part of it, Civilization 5, that was weird. Civ 5 became both a savior and my new vice.

I play the epic games on the biggest maps, so each campaign can last a day or more. Every session is different, and also, the same. You begin all excited about the possibilities ahead. Then you make some choices, usually the same ones you always make. I'll have a beer with whiskey chaser. I'll research the printing press and build a university. Then you settle down and work your way through, and then you sort of get sick of it, and you call it a day.

Playing Civ V does not confer a nice buzz, the way drinking does. But it crowds out everything else. It's a lazy and safe way to chase away the hours. I want to repeat that a wholesome or positive pastime, like maybe sailing or working at a charity shop, was never going to do it for me. The reason why Civ 5 works is because it's lonesome and yet demanding.

Drinking Coors alone for three hours

The game is about power and control. You are literally in charge of everything and everything does what you wish. I build cities and hew out borders. I direct manufacturing and armaments. I own religion and trade. This need to control an entire empire is a fantastically lame desire. But set against sitting in a bar, drinking alone for three hours, it's positively Olympian.

I'm trying to square this idea of control, and how it fits with boozing, and the best I can manage is this...

Drinking is an abrogation of responsibility and a release of control. It is a surrender of oneself to the magical organic compound, a handing over of the brain to an external force. Civ 5 is about controlling everything that happens in another life, while allowing yourself to lose contact with the life you are actually living.


The one thing I really don't like about Civ 5 is the AI diplomacy, when you have to deal with these computerized rival leaders and their claims on your territory. Rival AI emperors are designed to serve the game's need for balance rather than common sense or recognizably human flaws. So they come across as deranged, almost ...drunk.

This disorder in an otherwise ordered world bugs the hell out of me. Yet, in a perverse way, the AIs are more recognizable than I'd like to admit. They do weird, hurtful stuff that makes no sense at all. Executing their destruction is a great pleasure to me. I guess grinding Gandhi into the dirt is my detached attempt to "make amends," if only with myself.

Anyway, there it is. My weird relationship with a turn-based strategy game. There are other games than Civ 5 and, given what I do for a living, I'm obliged to play them, and so I've cut down on my Civ-time.

I've come to understand that Civ 5 was part of the process of losing something I really, really loved. It was mostly about finding a new compulsion, something kinda fun but utterly unproductive.

As drinking recedes into the past, my need for a wasteful pastime also diminishes. Booze was a compulsion and, without the option of replacing it with a different life-endangering pastime, I had to find one that wasn't going to kill me. Civilization 5 did a stand-up job.

These days I only play it when I'm having a bad day, which is rarely. I have other stuff to focus on; useful, valuable stuff. The phony empires of Civ 5 will just have to be built by someone else. My bar stool waits for another occupant.

- Final Note: When it comes to the issues discussed here, everyone is different. My experiences and my perspectives are not the same as anyone else's and should not be regarded as such. Please feel free to share your experiences in comments below.

civ 5

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